I've been rich and I've been poor: the economics of Oprah

Curator's Note

Two of the most popular people attempting to advise Americans in this time of economic insecurity are Oprah Winfrey and Suze Orman. They seduce us in trademark “sister-girl” tones to convince us that they are just like us---only richer. We follow their advice to dump debt, while secretly hoping for keys to a new car taped under our seats. More than working on our self-esteem so that we can attract more money, what we need from Oprah and Suze is context for how money really works in America, the truth that the jobs that propelled our parents into middle class status are not coming back, and the advice that our time might be better spent talking to Grandma who survived the Great Depression. “Emotional spending” is a real issue for the families who took up Oprah’s Debt Diet, but it is not a disease, as Dr. Robin Smith, another Oprah expert, declares. The real disease is the delusion that middle class families can turn the US economy around by embracing spending plans. Folks, a spending plan is only as useful as the cash you have coming in and Oprah’s Financial Gurus rarely suggest that we take a closer look at the cost of propping up capitalism, the ultimate Ponzi scheme.

There are huge emotions at play when it comes to money management. As a mental health professional, I specialize in “fiscal trauma”: a state of chronic lack that results in emotional consequences including depression, anxiety, fear, and confusion. Americans are also seeing a new type of financially traumatized citizens: the formerly upper-middle class who are downsized into near poverty, but still cling to luxury vehicles, private schools and expensive vacations until the last nickel of their severance packages are spent. Since no- and low-wage earning Americans are not included in Oprah’s financial discourse, we cannot benefit from their knowledge of the social, economic, and political forces that create and maintain a reservoir of poor people.



I really appreciate your analysis (and excellent links) of this "think and grow rich" message that Winfrey and Orman have been promoting for years, and in the process enriching themselves. Their association dates to the 1990s, when Orman was inducted into the stable of gurus featured in Winfrey's controversial "Change Your Life Television" crusade that kicked off the 1998 season of her show. In Orman's initial appearance that season, Winfrey assured viewers they could "have the money you want and deserve" if they just focused on the way they think about money, because "your thoughts create reality." That universal truth extended to money: "you have it or you don't have based upon the way you think about it." Orman's task was to teach them how to harness their minds and achieve "financial healing." Thus, as you note in your post, being without money is equated with being in a state of disease and/or some kind of personal failure. As Orman says here, "if you're not happy, you'll never have a lot of money," because you won't have the kind of "energy" to attract money. This notion--that we create and control reality with our minds--has a long history in the U.S.; it's rooted in the late 19th century New Thought movement that has spawned a variety of spiritual and psychological progeny organized around the idea of "mind cure" (e.g., positive thinking, Christian Science, Unity, Course in Miracles, positive psychology, etc.). As author Steven Starker argues, the basis of mind cure in all of its guises is "the fulfilled wish and how to achieve it"(www.amazon.com/Oracle-Supermarket-American-Preoccupation-Self-Help/dp/0765809648/ref=sr_1_7). Winfrey and Orman are contemporary adherents of this powerful current in American culture--hence the ease with which Winfrey has embraced and promoted "The Secret"(www.oprah.com/spirit/Discovering-The-Secret). As you point out, such a stance toward finances does not provide an understanding of "the social, economic, and political forces that create and maintain a reservoir of poor people." And that's its political and ideological value. 

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